Former Hong Kong actress-turned-activist scores conservation win for endangered pangolins

More than 200,000 of the scaled animals were estimated to have been killed between 2011 and 2013 for their medicinal value

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 October, 2016, 2:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 October, 2016, 2:02pm

Former Hong Kong film actress-turned-conservationist Sharon Kwok Sau-wan has declared victory after successfully pushing for pangolins to be placed on a most endangered species list at a global conference in South Africa.

Hong Kong has been a major transit point for illegal trade of the scaled animals, which are thought to have Chinese medicinal value. The rapid rise of China’s economy has also coincided with the high demand for pangolins.

Hong Kong’s fight against illegal wildlife trade needs more teeth

In June, the Customs and Excise Department seized about 4,000kg of suspected pangolin scales worth HK$9.8 million, from a container arriving from Cameroon – one of the largest hauls uncovered in the city for the last five years.

More than 200,000 pangolins were killed between 2011 and 2013, according to Annamiticus, a non-governmental organisation working to stop economic exploitation of endangered species.

Kwok said she took up the cause after a friend urged her to witness a large seizure of smuggled pangolins in Indonesia. What she saw broke her heart – that such “gentle creatures” were being wiped out through illegal trade.

At the 17th Conference of the Parties (Cop17) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), Kwok joined a delegation lobbying to get the remaining six species of pangolins listed in Appendix I of Cites.

Species under this listing are recognised as being threatened with extinction, and given maximum protection against trafficking, with heavy penalties for smugglers.

“Each country has to vote. So I was working on the [smaller countries] because their votes are also important,” she said.

Kwok focused on two categories of countries – those who were undecided and those who were against voting for the pangolins. The goal was to sway the former to vote ‘Yes’, and to convince the latter to abstain from voting entirely.

Kwok’s lobbying paid off, as countries voted in favour of including the remaining six species of pangolins on the endangered species list. Prior to the convention, only two species were listed in Appendix I.

The conference, which took place from September 24 to October 5 in Johannesburg, South Africa, also considered 62 proposals put forward by 64 countries, to change Cites trade controls that would affect nearly 500 animal species.

For Kwok and her fellow lobbyists, however, the victory was a bittersweet one, as other species such as African elephants – whose numbers are decimated by the ivory trade – failed to be listed on Appendix I for maximum protection.